Germany. And China, too.

You know you aren’t in China anymore when you see all the bicyclists stop at a red light at a virtually empty intersection, patiently waiting for the light to change to green before they head on. You know it when at breakfast you see German men sipping from huge glasses of weissbier as they eat their bratwurst. You know it when you enter a relatively upscale restaurant and see unleashed dogs lying on the floor by their owners’ feet. It was refreshing; I was glad to be back in Munich, where I spent my junior year of college studying classical music and German. This attitude was soon tempered, however, as my weekend progressed.

I arrived in Germany on Saturday afternoon around 5 p.m. and was surprised to see just about every business shut down for the day. I had forgotten to bring the recharging cable for my iPod and was certain I could easily find one in downtown Munich and set out for a little walk to do so. My hotel is by Gaertner Platz, right off of Schwannthaler Strasse, a street lined with one electronics shop after another. Whatever kind of electronics item you can think of – mobile phones, computers, disc drives, digital cameras – there’s a store that sells them on Schwannthalerstr.

The only problem was, every single one of them was closed.

In vain I walked from shop to shop. Each had the little sign on its door saying they close at 4 p.m. on Saturday and are closed all day Sunday. Okay. I used to live in Germany, and I had forgotten how seriously they take their weekends. And that’s not a bad thing. But then, when I was back in my hotel lobby, I heard the concierge telling a guest that Monday was a national holiday and that the entire city would be for all intents and purposes shut down. I was not going to get my cable.

I didn’t give up hope, and this morning (Monday) I resumed my quest despite the sudden drop in temperature and an icy rainfall. This time I walked much farther, crossing into Marienplatz (the Munich version of Wangfujing, except it’s incredibly beautiful and bursting with centuries-old culture) and scouring its outer limits. Nothing. Today, not even the restaurants and Internet cafes were open. I had to walk nearly half an hour to find a place where I could get a cup on coffee, and the Internet cafe I’m using now took me even longer to find.

Think about it: For two and a half days, a customer with needs, ready and willing to spend money, cannot find an open shop. I compared this with Hong Kong and with China, where the entrepreneurial spirit, annoying as it can be at times, is always on fire. With six years in Asia, I had never seen anything like this even once. The one exception is perhaps Chinese New Year’s day, when things in Greater China do shut down, but only for a day – and still you can find places that are open. Same in America, where on Christmas and Thanksgiving day most businesses shut down, but again only for a single day.

So basically, the thousands of tourists here and people here on business like me are shit out of luck. Two and a half days – that is a long time to lock down an entire country and bring all commerce to a grinding halt. (The Internet cafe in which I am working now is packed, by the way, because its owner apparently bucked the system and opened its doors. There is so much money to be made for those who really want to compete.)

I like the idea of lots of holidays and a relaxed work week. I think the average American workers gets a wretched deal with their measly 10 vacation days and precious few paid holidays.

However, what I have seen in Germany over the past three days drove home to me the point made in a book I am now reading about China, namely that the old European welfare state, with its promise of a 35-hour work week and lots of state-provided benefits simply cannot survive in today’s globalized world. Not when China is heading straight at them, shaking the foundations of their existence and driving them increasingly into irrelevance.

I love Germany and lived here for more than a year. I speak German (though on this trip the German kept coming out with lots of Chinese) and relate to this country on a deeply personal level. And maybe it was just bad luck that I landed in Munich on the eve of a two-day holiday. But that book I am reading (I’ll write it up over the next few days, and don’t want to give away the title yet) kept comparing Germany and China, and I couldn’t help doing so myself. It talked of the 25-hour workweek for teachers, and the attitude (since disproven at a painful cost) that Germany’s artisans were untouchable and invulnerable to global competition. It talked of a socialized medical system that was literally breaking the back of a nation weighted down already with an unemployment rate above 12 percent.

And yes, I’m conflicted as I write this. I believe in universal healthcare and unions and workers’ rights. But I also believe in competitiveness and pragmatism. As I walked the streets of Munich for two and a half days unable to buy a pen or a simple computer cable, I kept thinking, China is going to crush this country, which is too in love with its own comforts, too unwilling to face the realities of today’s globalized business world.

I know, it’s not that simple. Competition from China is unique in that it is not fair (more about that when I review the book I’m reading), and there is little that countries like Germany can do to defend themselves. Even if they added hours to their workweek and trimmed social spending, China would continue to undercut them and force their great companies to outsource all manufacturing, leaving countless workers in dire straits. But I saw my search for an open shop as a metaphor for what’s wrong with “Old Europe,” stuck in the past and believing it can weather the storm while keeping its ineffective and outdated welfare system intact. China is hungry. Its competitors had better be hungry, too.

I am sure many here see the long holiday and the relaxed working hours as great things, as signs of Germany’s strength, as proof of the efficacy of Germany’s liberal policies. But this comfort and complacency seems to me a trap, especially at a time when Germany’s population is aging, with nowhere near the number of young people to keep financing the strained welfare system.

And meanwhile, China is shaking the world, and places like Germany had better recognize the challenge. Even on CNY day in Beijing, I would have found a place to buy a pen and a cable. Someone’s always out there hustling to close the sale. Those who don’t play with equal determination and agility will be crushed under the behemoth that is Chinese competition.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 69 Comments

Slim, it’s a fast and furious world. Compete or die.

Smurs, no time to reply until the weekend. Bloated retirement programs, unsustainable healthcare, antiquated labor laws – maybe they don’t exist at all, the book said they do, will argue later.

May 31, 2007 @ 9:41 pm | Comment

hey there, i’m sorry if this seems unrelated, but i wanted to pass it around asap, is that OK? SECRET DOCUMENT: Ministry of Public Security’s Olympics Scrutiny Notice Reveals CCP’s Desperation, Violation of Human Rights, and Opposition to the Olympic Spirit This is what the CCP doesnt want people to know, that it is desperately afraid of people who seek justice and truth.HA! They think they can fool the world!!! May 25, 2007 Recently, Chinese authorities sent out the following directive: Since early-April, the Chinese police have been secretly issuing “Notification on Strictly Carrying Out Background Investigations on Candidates for the Olympics and Performing a Pre-Selection Test” to each province, autonomous region, police stations and bureaus in municipalities directly under the Central Government. In the notification, after removing the “Three Representatives,” other falsehoods, big sounding but empty words and bureaucratic jargon, what’s left reveals the evil Party’s weakness, and clearly shows that it is against the Olympics spirit and violates human rights. Please find below the language on the investigative directive: Sources: s-Scrutiny-Notice-Reveals-CCPs-Desperation-Violation-of-Human-Rights-and-Oppo sition-to-the-Olympic-Spirit/index.html and: I. Background Investigation on Individuals: 1. International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) members, including: (1) IOC members and guests invited by the Officials of international sports associations. (2) Officials of the International Single Item Sports Association, referees and their invited guests. (3) National and regional IOC members, including athletes, officials of delegations and officials attending the Olympics. (4) Officials of the Executive Committee in the Organization Committee of the Host Country, host city mayor, host city leadership in the government and their invited important guests. (5) Host city for the next Olympics and representatives from other cities applying for hosting the next Olympics. (6) Sponsors who have signed contracts with the IOC. (7) Athletes and Delegations. 2. Media: Media who purchased broadcasting rights and institutions who purchased broadcasting rights. 3. All Olympic staff members, including IOC employees, volunteers, contractors, security and temporary staff, and all others falling in that category. II. Benchmarks for Background Investigation: Anyone who falls into the following 43 categories, subdivided further into 11 different subcategories, must be excluded from the Olympics Games and competitions: 1. China’s Enemies: (1) Overseas hostile forces and hostile organization members. (2) Key individuals in ideological fields. (3) Individuals who disturb social stability. (4) Hostile individuals in Mainland China. (5) Individuals who were handicapped during riots and those who endanger society and family members of deceased people. (6) Individuals who were sentenced because they committed anti-revolutionary or other crimes and are thus considered a threat to national security, close relatives of such individuals, and individuals who have close ties to them. (7) Individuals who escaped overseas and any suspicious associates. 2. Falun Gong and Other (slanderous term deleted) Organization and Members of Other Harmful Qigong (1) Falun Gong and other (slanderous term deleted) organization members, associated organization who are supporting Falun Gong. (2) Members of 14 organizations that are evil cult organizations and assumed the mantle of religions, those that were identified by relevant state agencies and, members of seven existing evil cult organizations. (3) Members of the 14 risky qigong associations that were identified by state agencies. 3. Religious Extremists and Members of such Religions (1) Members’ illegal organizations that reside locally or abroad. (2) Individuals who were arrested or sentenced for being engaged in unlawful religious activities. (3) Individuals who are active in illegal religious activities. (4) Individuals who distribute illegal religious books and audio-video products. (5) Individuals who form unlawful religious groups, organizations, schools and other such sites, as well as other religious entities not sanctioned by the state. 4. National Separatists (1) Members of the “Three Forces” in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region and individuals supporting them locally and abroad. (2) Dalai Lama’s Government of Tibet in Exile and members of its affiliated organizations. (3) Individuals who partake in parades, demonstrations and protest activities with the goal of breaking up nations. (4) People who offer financial support to national separatist groups or activities. 5. Media People who endanger the Olympic Games: (1) Staff of any foreign media hostile to the People’s Republic of China. (2) Staff of media who publish anti-communist articles and those who viciously slander the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese government. 6. Non-governmental organizations involved in activities that pose a threat to the Olympic Games: (1) Foreign non-governmental organizations that are supported by foreign governments and who are known to be involved in penetrating, overthrowing and destruction of the CCP and the Chinese government. (2) All members in different non-governmental organizations who are likely to jeopardize the Beijing Olympic Games. 7. Dangerous elements, consistent appealers and other individuals who are known to be strongly discontent with the CCP (1) Individuals who show strong discontent with the CCP and Chinese government. (2) Individuals who file consistently troublesome law-suits or appeal to higher authorities for support. (3) Individuals who bring foreign lawsuits in cooperation with overseas forces. 8. Individuals who filed for investigation and prosecution by judicial authorities, or those under criminal and administrative orders. (1) Individuals who filed a complaint with public security authorities (2) Individuals who are under residential surveillance and out on bail while awaiting trial and those with restricted liberty. (3) Individuals who once were detained or arrested as suspects of criminal activities and were released without being fully cleared. (4) All individuals at large and escapees. (5) Individuals with warrants against them and individuals under investigation. (6) Criminal suspects by the border control. 9. Criminal elements who are on parole or probationary supervision, who are awaiting sentencing, who are released on parole, or released on bail for medical treatment, who are deprived of political rights, or others who received a sentence but are under home detention and those who were sentenced to labor re-education and rehabilitation and whose labor re-education sentence or other type of sentence was commuted. (1) Criminals who are sentenced to home detention and are under supervision, whose political rights were taken and who were given a suspended sentence. (2) Criminals who were sentenced and released on parole, and whose sentence was commuted to temporary home detention but continue to be under surveillance and who are serving criminal detention outside a detention center. (3) Individuals who are sentenced to serve labor re-education outside the re-education labor center. (4) Individuals who were released on bail for medical treatment and those who asked to be released under such a program. 10. Violent terrorists (1) Members of terrorist organizations. (2) Individuals who offer support and assistance to terrorist organizations or their members. (3) Relatives of members of terrorist organizations or individuals know to have close relationship with such members. 11. Members of illegal organizations (1) Individuals who are members of unlawful political organizations. (2) Individuals who carry out activities in the name of the organizations that are not lawfully registered. (3) Individuals serving in any capacity an illegal organization. Individuals who establish ties with such organization, and individuals who instigate discontentment toward the CCP through Internet. The notification requires Public Security Agencies and Bureaus in all provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the auspices of the central government to give priority to this directive and assign it top priority status. Group leaders are to be established at all levels. Deputy leaders responsible for public security in Mainland China must assume full responsibility. All related departments must cooperate. It is vital to keep this order and all associated activities secrets and not to assign it to others. It is of utmost importance to give the look of an easygoing environment to the outside, but in fact keep a firm handle on all activities. Members from the “Two non-s” organizations, Falun Gong practitioners and individuals who appeal to higher authorities for help, should all be monitored closely, and kept on a tight leash. No reason will be given to the public why anyone may not be allowed to be present at the event. Everything has to be kept confiden tial.

June 1, 2007 @ 1:16 am | Comment

Oh man the format is all sqashed together, owel … I was thinking about what snus said about westerners taking their standards of living for granted. Its a good point. I live in Canada and the complacency is sickening here. people are content as long as the donuts and coffee are rollin in, and dont really give a peep about anything that matters, comfort is the highest law they follow here, yucky, This is freaky cause the Canadian constitution is pretty righteous and the values of this country were good back in the day… Now, well you no how it is, its comfort and cash Last week some freak psychopath bo Xilai from the CCP cmae to talk money with our guy and was welcomed and defended, and its all just for money!!! Shame! My friends dad was a high vietnamese govt official when the communist came in. He told me that the reason that the commies were able to move in was effectively cause the moral character of the viet govt was weak. They gave in to the corruption of the CCP evil. That is to say, people need to hold their values dear to them and the wolrd if they want goodness to prevail.. If we are so lazy the CCP just takes full advantage of that and will come to collect, corrupt and exploit whoever is not awake… thats my two cents on that. Sorry about the font of the secret document, its important to read and spread around none the less.

June 1, 2007 @ 1:24 am | Comment

snow, are you not tired saying the same things every time?

June 1, 2007 @ 2:47 am | Comment


I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts and I hope that you won’t dismiss arguments in favor of the European model by just referring to common knowledge. The argument I made about stock markets is not something I just made up, I have mainly been inspired by Ronald Dore’s Stock Market Capitalism: Welfare Capitalism: Japan and Germany Versus the Anglo-Saxons (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

June 1, 2007 @ 6:02 am | Comment

Live in China for a while, and Europe/North America seem hopelessly complacent. Live in North America/Europe for a while, and China seems a hopeless mess.

Perspective is quite often a strange and inconsistent beast.

June 1, 2007 @ 2:28 pm | Comment please take look here. demonstrator in Xiamen this morning.

June 1, 2007 @ 4:15 pm | Comment

Bleak future for Beijing’s heritage The “communist ie, atheist, materialist way stinks like poisonous air!

June 2, 2007 @ 6:13 am | Comment

Shelley, thanks for the tip – big article in today’s LA Times about this demonstration. Very interesting – I’ll try to put up a post about it tonight.

June 2, 2007 @ 8:29 am | Comment

China Shakes the World, right? I finished that book about six months ago and I have been meaning to write a post on it ever since. But all I can think to say is, best book on China’s economy yet. Looking forward to your post as I figure you can do better.

June 2, 2007 @ 3:28 pm | Comment

I’ll help, Lisa…

June 2, 2007 @ 8:26 pm | Comment

This is a comment about this topic that I left over at German Joys, a blog by an American named Andrew living in Germany.

I’ve lived both in Germany and China. Peking Duck’s experience is not out of the ordinary for Germany. Listen, I have no problem with Germans having very restricted hours of business. Andrew has written that those enforced periods of quiet are one of the reasons he likes living in Germany. That system reflects German values and choices. All good.

China is very different, of course. Having lived there and witnessed their capitalist energy first-hand, you realize right away that, in the course of their five-thousand-year history, that experiment in communism was doomed from the beginning. Oddly, though, the Communist Party itself now functions just like one of the old dynasties — and thus the Chinese are comfortable with the arrangement, as long as they are successful, that is, and maintian the “mandate of heaven.”

In my somewhat expanded interpretation of Peking Duck’s argument, to which he himself offered several qualifiers, Chinese customer’s needs — and the needs of the shop owners and their desire to make more money — are the focal point of the economy. Open doors most of the time, for the Chinese, are good for both the businessman and the customer.

German businessmen and customers, on the other hand, prefer to make a trade-off: less hours of shopping for more hours of quiet and no working. Are most Germans happy with this trade-off? I would probably say yes.

So Chinese would rather stay open and make more money while Germans engage in this agreed-upon trade-off. All fine, in my book.

I myself am not arguing for one system over the other. It is my understanding that economies reflect to a large degree the cultures into which they are embedded.

I thought, at the same time, that the comments page had a good discussion of the variables between the two systems.

I still go back to Germany (last fall, two weeks in Berlin) and I still go back to China (Shanghai last). The people and societies are very different, but each great in their own ways.


June 3, 2007 @ 3:37 am | Comment

I speak German (though on this trip the German kept coming out with lots of Chinese)

I can only imagine the looks of befuddlement when you said things like, “Ich bin meiguo ren.” 🙂

June 3, 2007 @ 11:48 am | Comment

Just to close off this thread… I think what I wanted to say was really simple and I’ll try to say it one last time. I was reading a book about China’s competitiveness and the advantage it holds, specifically over Europe and America. It made a special point of singling out Germany’s generous welfare state, long vacations, short work week and perhaps over-generous and unsustainable health care system. I love Germany’s model, provided it is viable. I wish America would change to this system, if it could work as planned. But when I got off the plane the exact things the author warned of were staring me in the face. For my two and a half days there, Germany appeared hopelessly uncompetitive and frustrating. This wasn’t just a matter of getting an iPod cable. There was business I was prevented from doing. I witnessed serious frustration from visitors hotel who couldn’t find an open restaurant. And no, not all restaurants were closed, but on Monday almost all were. For two and a half days I could buy absolutely nothing except food, and my choices there were extremely in my limited. It simply struck me as an extraordinary coincidence that the words I had just read in my book were so relevant to my trip. I was shocked. As I said, maybe it was bad luck. As Thomas says, maybe there was a big department store open, though I am pretty sure there wasn’t – not in Munich, maybe in Berlin. I don’t want to argue about whether or not Germany’s system is good or bad or failing or whatever. We won’t get anywhere. From all I’ve read, the system faces enormous challenges. If it can go on forever as it is now, I’d not only be thrilled, I would lobby with all my might to get America on the same system. But Europeans tell me it is heading for a train wreck. We’ll see. Based on what I know, I’d have to guess it is unsustainable. As to the point made by someone that Kynge doesn’t speak German so can’t be trusted to write fairly on this issue, all I can say is that is pure nonsense. Kynge also writes about conditions in Sudan and how China is exploiting them. I’ll bet my life savings he doesn’t speak Sudanese or Arabic or any other local languages in that country. And he doesn’t need to. There are plenty of good sources out there in English about Darfur and Iraq and most other places. Would it help? Sure. Does the fact he doesn’t speak German cast a shadow of suspicion over what he writes? Absolutely not. Someone who is fluent in German can be just as prejudiced and even more so than Kynge. Okay, that’s it for now.

June 3, 2007 @ 7:09 pm | Comment

Everything was invented in China?

China has invented nothing in at least the past 250 years.

They steal ideas, they do not create them.

June 4, 2007 @ 4:19 am | Comment


You didn’t respond to any of my substantive points, what am I to make out of that? I think your blog is one of the more interesting ones in cyberspace right now, but your response in this particular debate leaves me aghast. Really disappointing.

Now to return to the only point you responded to, I do think the fact that US and British journalists rely on their native language too much for information presents a serious credibility problem for English language media – especially US media. The inability of US television to make foreign cultures comprehensible to a wider audience is appalling.

As for Kynge, he clearly has done his homework in relation to China, since he can speak Chinese, but when you read the book closely, it is painfully obvious that he has limited reading skills. That does impair his understanding of Chinese history, which he frequently refers to. You may think that is not a big problem, but I am 100 per cent sure that you wouldn’t take a German or French correspondent in the US seriously if he or she couldn’t spell names of US presidents correctly.

June 4, 2007 @ 4:32 am | Comment

China work this hard because they are sick about being poor…

Snusmumriken, my quick two cents w.r.t. your productivity and agriculture example.

When the agriculture productivity increases, fewer people are needed to supply the society with food. For the people who still engage in agriculture, they aren’t subsidizing other people’s food need. They sell their products in exchange of other products and services.

In your presumably pay-as-you-go public pension system, it’s a one-way street for the future workers — they pay and subsidize the pensioners.

In a globalizing world, why can’t those workers leave the country all together to reap the full benefit of their increased productivity?

June 4, 2007 @ 8:47 am | Comment

Snus, I don’t hve to argue every point with you. I said I am no expert on German economics, I wrote about what I saw in correalatoin with what I read, and I draw my conclusions, which may be totally wrong. Take it or leave it. Sometimes I have neither the time nor the wherewithal to engage in every argument ut in front of me here, and if it disappoints you I’m sorry. I think the point of my post was misinterreted by you and some others, and that’s okay; I’d simrather not devote any more time to it. Those who get my points will understand this,

June 4, 2007 @ 9:24 am | Comment

Richard: Whatever. I clearly wasted my time.

JXie: My analogy with agriculture was only a loose one to be sure. But I want to inject an amount of skepticism about the claims. At the end of the day, who will pay for pensions is a question of redistribution. And a productive society will be more able to pay for that than a less productive one, so that’s where we should start look when figuring out the costs.

June 4, 2007 @ 11:16 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.